Youth involvement and action: The Spacemakers project

Young people given a chance to design their own public park.

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Some of the Spacemakers being interviewed after the official opening of their park. Some of the Spacemakers being interviewed after the official opening of their park.

Context

The district of Hartcliffe and Withywood in the English city of Bristol is undergoing much-needed regeneration. The area has strong indicators of deprivation, challenging social issues, high levels of unemployment and a number of under-developed public spaces.

The major redevelopment scheme focussed the attention of a variety of professional interests and "Spacemakers" resulted from discussions between like-minded individuals within The Architecture Centre, Bristol, The Glasshouse, London, Bristol City Council and the Hartcliffe Community Campus. Together they came up with the very imaginative concept of involving disenfranchised young people in shaping their local environment.

As a first step, the partners formed a steering group and appointed an architect as project manager who was assisted by two school mentors and a local youth worker from Hartcliffe Youth Centre. Shortly afterwards, an artist also joined the project.

The project in action

This staff team then recruited project participants through holding open evenings for young people and their parents. These produced an initial group of 16 young people aged 13 – 15 from a range of backgrounds and with an equal mix of boys and girls. However, over the two year duration of the project six individuals left, as a result of competing demands on their time.

There was a lengthy period of preparation for the young people to enable them to play their role as Spacemakers. This included a three-day, tailor-made course about the design of public spaces during which the young people learnt about regeneration issues, public speaking, planning and negotiating. They also visited four major parks in the UK and others in the Netherlands to help them develop their perceptions and ideas about the features they liked and might want to incorporate in their own park.

Having chosen a site from ten local spaces available for development, the young people worked with the project artist in experimenting with possible designs and features. Then they selected a landscape architect from seventeen different candidates and this involved them having to provide each of the three short-listed applicants with a presentation about the project and their priorities for the park.

After this stage, much of the practical work was undertaken by the project manager and landscape architect but the Spacemakers kept people informed of developments. They produced ‘flyers’ and prepared models, plans, and displays which they presented to local residents and to funding bodies including Bristol City Council’s officials and elected members. Their training in public speaking was put to good use when they were interviewed on a weekly basis by local radio and TV during the construction of the park and at its launch, in November 2004, which was attended by 150 people.

Results

The most obvious and visible outcome is an impressive public space, which is heralded by a dramatic custom-designed stainless steel shelter sitting on stilts at the highest point of the site. A stainless steel slide, also custom-built, has been set into the slope below, and this leads into the central gravel area cut through by the meandering white concrete watercourse and sheltered by ancient oak trees. All these elements closely follow the brief set by the Spacemakers and were designed to be both robust and elegant. This Spacemakers site is one of four sections of Willmott Park and Bristol Parks Department has taken on responsibility for its future upkeep. Two Park Keepers have been employed and Community Play Rangers run free outdoor play sessions twice a week that provide opportunities for local children to play in the park in all weathers.

A second important outcome, which is perhaps not so evident to an outsider, is the young Spacemakers’ personal development. They have all grown in social and communication skills, knowledge and understanding of themselves and about the processes involved in teamwork and community action. They have changed their outlook and expectations. As Adele Sadd, one of the Spacemakers says, "we've got more confidence. We did a lot of public speaking and we got better and better at it." Now aged over 16, the Spacemakers are all in full-time education and five have every intention of going on to university.

Draft date

01/05/2007